A command of tone, key, breath and flow defines saxophone musician Roxy Coss. A thick yet easy bebop lassos the listener from the first beat on “Don’t Cross the Coss,” one of an armful of songs on the new CD titled “Quintet.” A smart beat (Jimmy Macbride/drums) launches “Free to Be” with sweet melodic bits on sax that go from the bottom tones to a bright and brilliant upper register. Coss solos beyond Earth’s atmosphere and trades off with a guitar (Alex Wintz) that is equally stellar on the music’s upwards climb. The energy slows down with the lyrical, waltz-feeling (though curiously not in ¾ time) “Enlightenment” where Coss does justice to a long, languid melody. Includes the phenomenally imaginative bassist Rick Rosato and the talented phraseologist on piano/keys, Miki Yamanaka.
Describe the essence of the Robert Pace method and how it helped you become a good musician?
I’m not an expert but my memory from childhood is that it was focused on building the complete musician rather than a technically proficient pianist. There were collaborative and creative ways to approach learning. We had two lessons per week – one with a partner, and one with a small group. We played a lot of musical games. The partner lessons were at the piano and were playing-focused, and we were still playing with our partner a lot, so we were making music with other people. The focus was on music theory, understanding keys, rhythm, harmony, musical relationships, as well as focusing on ear training and composition.
All those skills translated directly into my creative practice as a jazz musician. The fundamentals were covered in a way that I could take any musical journey I chose moving forward. We also listened to music in the lessons, and had freedom to choose what solo pieces we wanted to learn. It provided a foundation to think about what music I wanted to make as an individual and work on my self-motivation. Rather than following the teacher’s assignments, it was more self-driven.
Do you have a favorite overall instrument? What is your default when you compose?
My main instrument is the tenor sax and my next-favorite to play is the soprano, followed by bass clarinet, flute, then clarinet. However, I feel that tenor and soprano give me different voices to express myself, so sometimes I do prefer to play the soprano over the tenor. This usually dictates which I will play on any given tune when I’m performing or recording with my own band. Primarily, I use the piano to compose.
Once I’ve finished writing the piece, I determine which voice works most naturally for it that expresses the ideas most powerfully, unless I specifically had one of the instruments in mind while composing it, which is rare.
How did you meet the members of your quintet and why did you choose them?
I met all of the members on the scene at various gigs with other band leaders or through other friends/musicians. They all became friends and collaborators. I assembled my band with this particular personnel over a couple of years, when I was trying out different combinations of musicians to find the best overall unit. I wanted a band of musicians who were indeed friends; I wanted musicians who could read well, but also who listen and respond. I wanted musicians who have their own voice and are willing to take risks, express themselves and their voices, and to do so within the overall goal of the band sound and the construct of a given composition, whether it’s my original pieces or arrangements of other tunes. They are all some of the best musicians out there, so I feel lucky that they’ve committed to the group and contributed their voices to the overall sound.
What are the qualities of a great leader?
I think everyone has their own way of leading, based on personality. You have to be true to yourself if you want to be a leader; as well as being able to listen, have a strong conviction and vision, be determined and persistent. A great leader knows how to make people feel valuable, appreciated, and how to get the best out of them; and they know how to unify a group towards a common goal. A great leader takes ownership and responsibility.
What would be your dream lineup as far as instrumentation?
This depends on what music you’re playing. Overall, I’m happy with my quintet instrumentation – sax and guitar, piano, bass, drums. But, different ensembles can achieve different sonic goals! I love a full symphony. I love a big band for certain things, and I love a duo for others.
What was the impetus for creating Women in Jazz Organization? What has it accomplished and what is left to be done?
WIJO (WEE-joe), or Women in Jazz Organization, came together for several reasons. Our mission is: “Women In Jazz Organization intends to help level the playing field in Jazz, so that women and non-binary people have equal opportunity to participate in and contribute to jazz, leading to an improved and more rich, diverse, and successful art form.” I felt there is a need for a place for women in jazz to come together socially, to share experiences and stories, to support each other, exchange professional advice, connect, and stop the isolation and competition between women; and to work to change the jazz community – to level the playing field. I also wanted to do something to change the community for the future’s sake, for girls who are coming after me. There seemed to be a need for this reflected in the response WIJO received, the numbers of people who joined, who came to meetings, and have helped the mission.
Right away, when we started meetings, I felt a new sense of belonging and community I had never experienced before in my life. And I think others felt this too. Also, women started hiring each other more for gigs and recordings, teaching, and other music work. I think it worked to build this network of women, where we knew more about each other and had better access to each other. It also worked to get more discussion going in the overall community about gender in jazz. I’ve done a lot of panels, classes, lectures, etc. around the world on this topic, and people know to come to WIJO for this now. We have also done a lot of work to get our members’ music out there, through concerts, jam sessions, and radio shows, as well as playlists. Just having an organization raises the awareness that we are out here.
Our biggest program so far has been the WIJO Mentors program, which pairs young jazz musicians with professionals from our WIJO community, both identifying as women or gnb (gender nonbinary). When I talk to the alumni of this program, and to other young women and gnb musicians around the country, they tell me it has changed things for them, knowing we exist, knowing they can “do this” – become a professional jazz musician.
We still have a lot of work left to do. The numbers are still so low, of women and gnb jazz musicians in the top levels – whether we’re talking about academia (student enrollment, faculty, guest artists, etc.) or performance (festivals, gigs, recordings, etc.), as well as the industry (labels, radio, writers/reviewers, promoters, club owners/managers, agents, etc.). There is definitely more awareness of the issue these days, but there is a false sense being portrayed in the publicity world that things are “better” or “equal” now.
How has your career changed due to lockdown?
My career slowed down entirely. It was a good thing for me personally because I had been working non-stop for several years. With performance, WIJO and teaching, I was working around the clock, never taking days off. It allowed a space for me to reassess my priorities, both personally and in my career. I practiced a lot during one segment of the lockdown, but mostly have taken a lot of time off. My husband and I decided to focus a lot more on family; we bought a house and decided to have children, and now I have a newborn daughter! So, this part of the pandemic has been devoted to building that, and now figuring out how to move forward in my career with this new lens of family being the priority. I am still very much wanting the same things for my career in terms of my musical goals, wanting to tour and perform/record, wanting to create change for the community through WIJO and other activism work, and wanting to be actively involved in the educational realm of jazz and music.
I don’t much like the “streaming” fad that has taken over. This music doesn’t translate very well when you’re not in person. It’s so much about that energy of live music, live audience, in-the-moment interactions. I miss that terribly and can’t wait until I can perform more again. Although many of my friends have returned to gigs, I haven’t had the opportunity to get back at it in the same way as I was participating before. Part of this is the timing of the birth of my daughter, but part of it is the nature of the gigs I was doing when the pandemic started. I’m hopeful that the spring semester will bring more performing opportunities and more interaction with other humans in person.
Does each album teach you a lesson in some way?
Absolutely! Each album is a huge journey, a feat to accomplish. It takes such discipline to see it through to the finish line. That alone is a lesson. But through composing the music, playing with the band and somehow creating an overall “complete package” it forces you to think about your bigger goals and vision as an artist. It provides a concrete thing to try to improve upon musically, and the end result is a documentation of where you “really” are at which is more objective than your feelings after a gig, for instance.
What do you like most about writing arrangements?
I like asking, “what does this need?” and allowing the music to tell me where it “has to go.” Being in the moment, letting the ideas flow, and finding the next puzzle piece that fits perfectly into place.
Plans for the rest of 2021 into 2022?
I just went “back to work” from maternity leave and finished my next record (working on the mixing/mastering and artwork). We recorded in June and it will come out in the spring of 2022. I performed with Gene Perla’s new band Star Wonder and recorded with DIVA. I will be returning to teaching – an ensemble at Juilliard, a residency at Arizona State University (it had been remote) working with the saxophonists, and giving some classes at Jazz House Kids. I’m also doing some Zoom masterclasses and working virtually with a sax school. And, I’m doing a ton of work with WIJO. We’ve just launched our Mentors program and we’re ramping up some other programs.
For more information visit https://www.roxycoss.com.
Photo courtesy of artist/c. Desmond White
(c) 2021 Debbie Burke